This is a new author to me, brought back into print by Agora Books. It seems as though Hamilton was not a prolific mystery author, as Agora list her other titles as: The Two Hundred Ghost (1956), Death at One Blow (1957) and A Night to Die (1959). Her tales feature ‘crime-solving husband and wife duo, Sally and Johnny Heldar.’ Jamie Sturgeon was also able to provide me with further information on this writer and the Hamilton name was a pseudonym for Hester Denne Shepherd. According to Jamie she was born in 1920 in Dundee and went to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages. In War World Two she served in the wrens and after the war she worked in a London bookshop for a while. She died in 1995.
Hamilton’s time working in a bookshop makes its way into her stories, as her Johnny Heldar is an antiquarian bookseller, (with Commando experience), who lives with Sally and his three children, (plus a nanny), in Bloomsbury. One evening the couple are visited by Toby Lorn. He suffers from the effects of polio and Johnny was able to support in his time of need, when as a teenager he lost his father and brother, (the latter due to the war). He now works in the National Press Archive, which has been recently established. Toby wants Johnny to help him with a poison pen writer who seems to be targeting a colleague called Frank Morningside. The rude rhymes and pranks began small and were in juvenile taste, but the later epistles and poltergeist activity have become more destructive and unpalatable. Two days into the job and already Johnny has identified that more than one person has been involved in this literary attack and he decides to have a conference with Frank and two others in the know at Frank’s office on Wednesday evening. But you will probably have already guessed that by the time they arrive Frank is dead, the victim of a booby trap involving a heavy box of glass negatives…
Although this is the second to last novel from Hamilton, the reader quickly finds their feet with her series characters. Interestingly in this story we get a reference to a dead body which was found in Johnny’s shop. Perhaps that is when the pair got involved in amateur detection? We are given an interesting array of suspects to consider in this mystery: a love rival, a fastidious spinster, a young reprobate, an ex-fiancée. The disappearance of certain files at the archives also adds to the case, as does the growing anxiety that someone close to the Heldars might be involved. Johnny and Sally work their way through the suspects methodically, providing the reader with plenty of data in alibis, criminal timetables and more. Consequently, I was quite taken back that Hamilton managed a very neat surprise at the denouement, which works very effectively and does not come across as far fetched or out of the blue. This is indeed a rarity.
Despite being told that Johnny and Sally are a crime sleuthing couple, I think it is advisable that readers go in with a slightly altered expectation. Namely that Johnny is the investigator and Sally is his able assistant. Whilst they equally divide surveillance work, Johnny has very firm lines dividing what Sally can and can’t do in an investigation. The narrative at one point says that, ‘Johnny seldom gave her orders, but when he did, she had no choice. If she disobeyed him, she would be left out of it next time.’ Moreover, he is far from pleased when Sally decides to tail a suspect off her own bat and ultimately this is an action she feels she needs to apologise for. In the main she is more of an encourager for Johnny, as well as a sounding board for his ideas, also taking part in some of his re-enactment experiments at home. However, it was a relief to see Sally adopt the principle of being honest with the police, believing that she ‘had got to freely’ communicate with them in order for the guilty to be found.
So all in all this was a pleasant introduction to the work of Henrietta Hamilton and I am interested to read more by her. Thankfully it seems Agora will be reprinting more by this writer as my copy includes a snippet from another title: Death at One Blow.
Source: Review Copy (Agora Books via Netgalley)